Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), Symphony No. 3 (Eroica); Vienna Philharmonic (Leonard Bernstein, cond.), live
Beethoven delayed writing a symphony until 1799–1800, when he was thirty years old and firmly established in Viennese circles as the successful composer of piano and chamber works. His first two symphonies, No. 1 in C Major, finished in 1800 and published as Opus 21 in 1801, and No. 2 in D Major, completed in 1802, were solid pieces in the traditional Viennese mold (though Lockwood makes a case for subtle innovations in No. 2). At that point Beethoven went through a severe personal crisis as he realized that his loss of hearing, first sensed around 1796 when he was twenty-five, was irreversible and would probably get worse. In an anguished letter to his brothers, the famous Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802 (named after the town outside Vienna where he was staying), he lamented his fate and admitted that he had considered ending his life. But art held him back, he wrote, making it impossible for him to leave the world until he had brought forth all that he felt within himself. The letter remained unsent and was discovered after his death.
The result of this self-reflection and resolve was Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major of 1804, in which Beethoven broke with classical tradition and created a work of unprecedented scale and complexity. Called “Eroica” (Heroic) and dedicated “To the Memory of a Great Man” (originally Napoleon, until he crowned himself emperor and fell from Beethoven’s favor), the work liberated the symphony from eighteenth-century conventions and drew listeners into an emotional realm of struggle, endurance, and triumph. From then onward Beethoven produced a series of highly individualistic symphonies, normally writing two together, one radical, one conservative. The tame Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major provided a balance to the “Eroica” in 1806. Then, in 1808, Symphony No. 5 in C Minor complemented Symphony No. 6 in F Major (“Pastoral”). In 1812, Symphony No. 7 in A Major appeared with Symphony No. 8 in F Major. Finally, after a hiatus of ten years and his descent into total deafness, came the monumental Symphony No. 9 in D Minor in 1824, the most radical of them all and the first symphonic work to incorporate solo voices and chorus.
—George B. Stauffer, New York Review of Books, 12/3/15 (reviewing Lewis Lockwood, Beethoven’s Symphonies: An Artistic Vision)